Cold weather camping? You bet! Winter camping has both unique perks, and unique challenges. First, bugs are generally not a problem, and neither are crowds--both huge pluses. Depending on where you are, you may or may not be camping in snow. If there is snow, it can be a winter wonderland. Even if you aren't in the "bitter cold and snow", relatively mild temps in the 40s can still pose a problem. We are all for cold weather camping, but preparation and safety are key. Read on for the basics in cold weather camping.
Top Ten Winter Camping Tips
1. Invest in quality gear
2. Prepare, prepare, prepare
3. Keep a close eye on the weather
4. Don't test your limits (ever!)
5. Set your tent up for cold weather
For tips 6-10, be sure to check out Cold Weather Camping, Part 2.
1. Quality Gear
First and foremost, never ever cut corners on quality gear. The old adage you get what you pay for is especially true here. Invest in all weather tents, they tend to be sturdier and vented to prevent moisture accumulation. A quality sleeping bag, rated 10-15 degrees below your coldest anticipated temperature is critical. Get a liquid fuel stove, they perform better in cold weather. We could write entire articles on each piece of gear for cold weather camping, but you get the point. Don't cut corners, expect to pay extra for quality winter camping gear to stay safe and comfortable.
2. Prepare, Prepare, Prepare
Spend some time going over the gear you'll need for the conditions you expect to be camping in. High desert, arid and cold? Deep snow and in the twenty degree range? Alpine with high wind conditions? Answering this will guide your gear selection. If you are fair weather camping nearby, it's often possible to leave work on a Friday afternoon, get home, grab your gear and set up camp while it's still light. In cold weather, along with the days being naturally shorter, everything takes longer. Always have a back-up plan, and let at least one person know your plan and how to help if something goes awry.
3. The Weather Forecast
Be prepared to check this several times a day, and plan accordingly. Remember that the weather doesn't always follow the forecast, it has its own mind. So if you think a storm is brewing, even if the forecast doesn't call for one, err on the safe side and assume a storm is coming. Exercise a high level of common sense, it goes a long way. We think the biggest thing here is knowing that cold weather sucks down battery power. So have a lot of back-up power on every trip so you can stay up to date on the weather.
4. Don't Test Your Limits
We are often asked how cold is too cold for camping? That's actually impossible for anyone to answer due how much it varies by individual, but the rule of thumb is if you aren't adequately prepared and enjoying yourself, it's too cold. For some it could be 45 degrees, others know the winter camping ropes and can do subzero. If you are just considering cold weather camping, start slowly and build your knowledge base. Go incrementally--low temps into the 40's, then try 30's, and so forth. Know your tolerance for the conditions you are likely to encounter. And be realistic, don't ever test your limits, because that can get unsafe really quick.
5. Set Up Your Tent Properly
Real important to do this one right. Your tent should be rated for at least one person beyond who you will be camping with, to allow for extra gear storage. If possible, pick a site with good natural shelter, like a windbreak. Remove all the snow from an area the size of the tent base, and if you can't do this, thoroughly pack it down by walking on it. Do not set up on top of vegetation, which can turn wet and soggy. How do you stake a tent when the ground is frozen? The short answer is you can't. So you'll need to tie your tent pole to something sturdy--like heavy chunks of firewood, bags of sand, etc. Avoid placing your tent under trees where the snow could dislodge on top of you. Finally, vent your tent properly to avoid moisture accumulation.
If you wonder how people can ice fish, it's because they aren't cold. They are well prepared, have the right gear and generally really enjoy themselves. Cold weather camping is no different. Be prepared, invest in the right gear and have a game plan. Winter camping can be a whole lot of fun, and we hope you give it a try. For the next set up tips, read Cold Weather Camping, Part 2.